I wasn’t planning on writing another postmortem so soon, especially not for a game like Battleborn, which, frankly, had “died” long before the official announcement came from Gearbox that announced the project as being placed in a development limbo. But the PewDiePie thing has calmed down (he’s managed to avoid making any major gaffes, and no other studio has joined Firewatch developer Campo Sampo in their attack against the famous youtuber) and the more I thought about it, the more I figured the game deserved at least something of a proper goodbye, given that despite it’s many problems and faults, it really wasn’t that bad a game.
At it’s core, Battleborn’s closing after a mere 16 months after being released is a tragedy, moreso for the fans than for the developer itself. Because if we really want to point fingers as to what caused the game’s untimely demise, all the blame can squarely be pointed to Gearbox. Or at least, decision-makers in the Gearbox office who have been straining the company’s relationship with fans ever since Duke Nukem Forever.
Let’s go back for a bit.
If you look at Gearbox’s extended history, starting with their expansions for Half-Life and a port of the game for the PS2, the company had an extremely strong start in the industry. They worked on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. They made Counter-Strike: Code Zero. They were the people behind the popular Brothers in Arms series, and they were even the folks behind the Samba De Amego remake for the Wii, which if nothing else showed the company was capable of being versatile. But while they were well-known and liked in the world of PC gaming, it wasn’t until 2009 and the release of Borderlands did they start to become a household name.
You don’t need me to tell you how great Borderlands was. Unfortunately, the mega-hit seemed to mark a peak for the company, because ever since then it’s struggled in the spotlight that’s suddenly been shone on it.
Case in point? The aforementioned Duke Nukem Forever.
Borderlands 2 showed they could still make a damn fine FPS, and even put some heart into it, but then Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel showed that their one-trick pony was starting to tire out even the most dedicated fans. There was a huge fiasco surrounding misleading press materials for Aliens: Colonial Marines, and while Homeworld was well-received by critics, the company did such a bad job of marketing it that the highly-anticipated re-release of one of the most beloved series in classic PC gaming wasn’t even able to break a million units sold.
That’s largely because all their time and energy was being invested in another game that was set to be released that year: Battleborn.
It’s easy to see why Gearbox would want to put their eggs into that basket. They wanted to capture what made Borderlands such a fantastic, popular experience, and translate it into a series that offered more avenues for expansion, and, you guessed it, monetization. And credit where it’s due, they could have just released a shoddy Borderlands MOBA or something and tried to capitalize on the well-known franchise they already had, but instead, they opted for a whole new universe that merely stole Borderlands sense of style and humor, for better or worse. Part of that was simply a good design mind: Borderlands had a very distinct science-fiction atheistic that would have been limiting for a MOBA-style game, which relies on hero verity both in gameplay and style. A new universe that could justify an elf fighting alongside a cyborg ninja and a rocket-wielding commando bird, and meant they could avoid having Borderlands-themed heroes that would have either been “high-tech sci-fi warrior” or “low-tech junkyard scrapper”.
The marketing was hyping up the game’s 80’s cartoon appeal with comics and cartoons, an open demo allowed players to enjoy the wide cast of characters and experience the hit-or-miss humor, and there were promises of free updates that would include new heroes, maps, and more. Battleborn was destined to be a money-making success.
It’s easy to point the finger to Overwatch and say they were the main reason that Battleborn was ultimately a failure. It’s a common opinion and one I used to subscribe to myself. But, if you think about it, being released the same month as another massively anticipated hit doesn’t have to be something you’re unable to survive. People forget this all the time, but Dark Souls was actually released near the same time as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. And if we’re talking about David v Goliath stories, it’s hard to top that – A brand-spankin’ new open world Bethesda mainstay title, vs the spiritual successor to a game people agreed was kinda hard and really good if you could muscle past that damn swamp.
Dark Souls may have lost out on some well-deserved “game of the year” awards, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t survive the unfortunate release window: it went on and thrived regardless, spawning two-and-a-half sequels and becoming such an exemplar of the video game world that whole books are still being written on its design philosophy and culture. Battleborn, which was being produced by a much more popular and prestigious developer and had far more marketing clout behind its release, could have survived Overwatch’s launch too.
If they had played smart. Which they didn’t.
Granted, they were hamstrung from the word “go” by their choice of demonetization. Both Battleborn and Overwatch were 60 dollar games (although Battleborn dropped to 40 a month after release, spitting in the face of people who bought it at full price at launch) that had optional microtransactions, but while Battleborn allowed you to spend money to unlock heroes and skins, Overwatch gave you all the heroes from the get-go and hid cosmetics behind Loot Boxes. And while I am indeed sick of loot boxes, I have to admit that Overwatch had the far more compelling model. If there was a hero you wanted, you could just play them, you wouldn’t have to earn or buy them in-game. And while Battleborn let you cherry-pick what skins and champions you wanted to buy, they were still hiding actual gameplay (the characters) behind a paywall of either time invested or raw cash.
Which is why, as many predicted, the smartest thing for Battleborn to do would have been to adopt the Free-to-Play model. The game was basically already designed for it, just reduce the price to zero, draw more people in, and give people who spent those first 60 (or 40 bucks) all the heroes and a few skins as thanks for their purchase. But Gearbox, perhaps fearing another backlash when they first dropped the price, or a stubborn unwillingness to lose any revenue, refused. They only changed their mind a mere 3 months after “closing” the game, at which point Paladins had already filled the gap that Battleborn could have filled.
But you know, even if they kept the price tag up, there’s more they could have done. They released new heroes, and even helped their players host a day of appreciation that saw a temporary influx of players, but they could have easily stepped up beyond that. They could have hosted events, put the game on sale, cross-promoted the game with their Borderlands characters, improved the in-game monetization to make it more player-friendly… Gearbox had options, they mostly chose to simply sit on their hands and hope things improve.
But they didn’t. So, the inevitable happened.
But I do want to say that even in closing down the game, Gearbox screwed the pooch. It took them about 16 months to decide they were done supporting the game, whereas a game in a similar situation, Evolve, took 21 months to decide to give up on the game. The First Final Fantasy XIV lasted 24 months before servers were shut down and A Realm Reborn was released to critical acclaim. Heroes of Newerth, the MOBA you keep forgetting exists, has managed to endure seven years, surviving DOTA 2, Smite, and countless other “MOBA of the months” that have come and went since.
A developer that cares about a project can find a way to salvage it. Despite Gearbox’s clearly ambitious goals for Battleborn, they didn’t care enough to try to fight for it. They made a paltry effort to turn the game free-to-play (which has saved countless other less well-known titles, like Guild Wars 2 and DC Universe Online) but like the aforementioned Evolve, they didn’t give the game enough time to grow into the free-to-play space before they decided it wasn’t worth their time sticking it out. Why would they? When they have a whole new Borderlands sequel to crap out, as well as some unwanted Duke Nuken follow-up and the triple-A release of We Happy Few.
Battleborn could have been something special, Gearbox. It had heart, it had good characters (sometimes), and a unique world. It’s clear that at the start of the project, you really did care about it. Or at least, some people on your team did.
But now, like Mass Effect and Dark Souls, your light has faded. The question is, when did you ever really fight to keep it burning?